Movies

In ‘High Life,’ director Claire Denis sends Robert Pattinson into outer space

Arthur Mola/Invision for The Hollywood Reporter/AP Images
Claire Denis

Claire Denis may be widely regarded as one of cinema’s greatest living filmmakers but she has no qualms about admitting to being a fan of the “Twilight” movies and Robert Pattinson, who stars in her latest film, “High Life,” opening Friday.

“I was crazy about him, about the [“Twilight”] couple. And then I saw the Cronenberg movie [“Cosmopolis”]. . . . I saw ‘Good Time.’ When I started working with him, I was not only charmed and seduced, I was inspired very much,” Denis said. “His beauty was not problematic. You can see through the beauty. I can.”

“High Life” marks three firsts for Denis, who turns 73 on April 21. It’s the French director’s first English-language film; her first attempt at science fiction; and her first film with an American movie star. Pattinson plays Monte, who’s among a group of death row prisoners sent into outer space on a mission to extract energy from a black hole. Another crew member, Dr. Dibs (Juliette Binoche), has a mission of her own, to collect semen from male passengers for a reproduction experiment. Themes of life and death abound; when crew members die, Monte tosses their bodies into the void, all the while tending to a child born on the spacecraft.

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“They have drifted so far from our solar system that there’s no coming back home,” Denis said in an interview following the film’s premiere at the 2018 Toronto International Film Festival. “They have no possibility of returning to Earth. They are floating in outer space entirely alone.”

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Although her films are often set in specific worlds — colonial French Africa for her 1988 debut feature, “Chocolat,” or the military camp in the Djibouti desert for “Beau Travail” (1999) — and center on characters who are outsiders, alienated, or alone, Denis had practical reasons for setting “High Life” in deep space. “[Producer] Oliver Dungey is English and he wanted to do a film in English with me,” she said. “The only place I would be obliged to speak English and not French is in space because in space you either speak Russian, English, or maybe soon Chinese,” she said.

Pattinson, who shot to fame as vampire Edward Cullen in the “Twilight” franchise, has since reinvented himself as one of independent cinema’s most adventurous actors. But he wasn’t Denis’s first choice. She said she’d imagined Monte as a “40-ish man, completely disappointed with life, with no hope. He wants nothing then suddenly there is a baby and he has to get alive. I had in mind a Philip Seymour Hoffman type. ”

Denis didn’t think Pattinson, “such an iconic young man,” would want to play Monte. “I told him, ‘You are really too young.’ But he was ready, like a young knight entering chivalry. . . . I said, ‘Wow, this is not a guy tired of life. It’s a guy [who’s] principled in not giving away fluid. OK, I thought, ‘If you like it, I will be happy.’ ”

Pattinson was already a fan and eager to work with Denis. “I’ve loved every one of her movies, so it’s nice to throw yourself in with someone you totally trust,” he said in a recent telephone interview. “Doing something with Claire Denis was a no-brainer. It’s much more risky with small, commercial stuff that it could potentially end up as a nothing. With Claire, even if [the film] is an experiment and people don’t really get it, it’s still going to be really cool.”

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He wasn’t sure how to play Monte, since the actor signed on when “High Life” was just a 23-page treatment that was less dialogue and more “detailed equations about how to get energy from a black hole,” he said. “I had zero clue how to approach it at all,” he said, unlike Binoche, who “had a complete idea of how she was going to play [her role] and knew exactly what the story was about. I still don’t know what it’s about after I’ve seen the movie.

“I realized over the last two years, you’re much better off not having a full or tight idea of who the character is. Claire’s style is so much about the way the body moves, sensuality, and textures and things.”

Pattinson says that what surprised him most was how “playful and funny” Denis was on set.

“She has a very perverse sense of humor, an unusual way of seeing things. I love introducing her to other people in the industry, because there is such a reverence for her yet she’s constantly going against the grain. . . . The first time I watched ‘High Life’ it was just me and Claire and we were just laughing and laughing. I found it audacious. Now it’s out, and people are interpreting it as highly cerebral. In Toronto, there was this silent audience. I thought, ‘Am I interpreting this strangely?’ I found it hilarious. That’s the thing about Claire; she is a bit of a provocateur.”

Denis appeared last Monday at the Brattle Theatre for a preview screening of “High Life.” She told the packed house that she and Pattinson will reunite for her adaptation of Denis Johnson’s novel “The Stars at Noon.” Pattinson said production will begin sometime next year. “I think we’re shooting in South America somewhere which will be very different from ‘High Life,’ which was shot in a studio. It is literally the opposite world of ‘High Life.’ ”

Loren King can be reached at loren.king@comcast.net.